Over the past several decades, research has fundamentally changed our understanding of how adolescents—young people ages 10 to 25—develop, grow, and learn. Changes in brain structure and function (such as the strengthening of connections within and between brain regions and the pruning away of unused connections) that occur during adolescence affords young people a remarkable capacity to learn, adapt to changes, and explore their own creativity. Adolescent brains are specially tailored to meet the needs of this stage of life, allowing them to explore new environments and build new relationships with the world and people around them.
But what does our new understanding mean for society? How can we create the kinds of settings and supports that allow adolescents to thrive and make meaningful contributions to the world around them?
A positive pathway into a thriving adulthood is not forged by adolescents alone. Instead, it requires alignment between the strengths of adolescents, like their increased independence, flexible problem solving skills, and openness to new experiences, with resources available in their environments.
There is an urgent need to reimagine and redesign the systems and settings that adolescents most frequently encounter, including the education, health, justice, and child welfare systems. By embracing a collective responsibility to build systems that account for the new knowledge we have acquired, we can ensure that millions of young people flourish and can impact society for the better.
Read Chapter 1.
10-24-year-olds in 2010 U.S. Census
There were approximately 73.5 million adolescents ages 10 to 25 in 2017, representing 22.6 percent of the U.S. population.
The adolescent population is expected to become majority-minority by 2020.
Adolescence begins with the onset of puberty (around age 10) and ends during the mid-20s (age 25). Unique changes in brain structure and function, make adolescence an exciting and important time for growth, learning, and discovery. Learn more about adolescent development in Chapter 2.
Puberty occurs over an extended period of a young person’s life during which developmental changes result in the maturation of primary and secondary sex characteristics and the acquisition of reproductive maturity. Socially, pubertal maturation and its accompanying physical changes also affect how adolescents perceive themselves and how they are treated by others.
As connections within and between brain regions become stronger and more efficient, and unused connections are pruned away, adolescent brains exhibit plasticity. This means adolescents’ brains are adaptive; they become more specialized in response to environmental demands. The onset of puberty also brings about changes in the limbic region of the brain, resulting in greater sensitivity to rewards, threats, novelty, and peers. In contrast, it takes longer for the cortical region, which is implicated in cognitive control and self-regulation, to develop.
The temporal discrepancy in the specialization of and connections between brain regions makes the adolescent brain specially tailored to this stage of life. The heightened sensitivity to rewards, willingness to take risks, and the salience of social status—propensities that are critical for exploring new environments and building nonfamilial relationships—help adolescents build the cognitive, social, and emotional skills necessary for productivity in adulthood.
The increased cognitive abilities gained during adolescence create the capacity for other aspects of psychosocial development, such as developing identity and capacity for self-direction. An adolescent’s identity is an emerging reflection of his or her values, beliefs, and aspirations, and it can be constructed and reconstructed over time and experience. Adolescence is also marked by a growing capacity for self-direction. Over the course of adolescence, youth gain the cognitive skills needed to reflect on complex questions about their role in the world. This enables them to question the legitimacy and fairness of everyday experiences and of social institutions.
Contrary to the common understanding that a person’s genes are set in stone, contemporary studies show that genes and environment interact: The way heredity is expressed in behavior depends significantly on influences in a person’s environment. And the trajectory of an individual’s life may be changed, negatively or positively, at each life stage. Protective factors in the environment—such as supportive relationships with family and caretakers and access to resources—support positive trajectories, while harmful experiences (such as toxic stress and housing insecurity) may lead to at-risk or poor trajectories (Figure X).
Investments in programs and interventions that capitalize on the brain’s capacity to change during adolescence can promote beneficial shifts in young people’s life trajectories, both for youth who may have faced adverse experiences earlier in life, and for those who are facing challenges now.
To learn more about how the environment can get under the skin, see Chapter 3.
Disparities in family and neighborhood resources and supports, biased and discriminatory interactions with important social systems, and resulting inequalities in opportunity and access severely curtail the promise of adolescence for many youth. For example, some young people have access to high-quality education and supportive social networks while others have neither. Some young people face discrimination while others do not. These differences can significantly hinder an adolescent’s ability to thrive. Our collective prosperity depends on equal opportunity for all young people.
Percentage of Students Proficient in Math, by Race/Ethnicity
Share of Youth In Group Homes and Aging out of Foster Care by Race/Ethnicity
Juvenile Arrest Rate per 100 by Race/Ethnicity
Juvenile Detention rate per 100,000
Disparities in adolescent outcomes are not immutable. They are responsive to changes in underlying conditions, and adolescents themselves show resilience and demonstrate strengths and assets that may be utilized to overcome inequities. An effective strategy to reduce inequities needs to address the main sources of disparities. Some promising policies and programs that tackle these disparities in opportunity include:
For more on inequity in adolescence, see Chapter 4.
In making its recommendations for the education, health, child welfare, and justice systems, the committee identified six cross-cutting principles for policy and practice. These principles are informed by the neurobiological and socio-behavioral science of adolescence and an understanding of the troubling and increasing disparities in opportunity among youth. Click on each principle to learn more, and see Chapter 5 for more information.
The U.S. education system was largely designed for an earlier era. Schools must broaden their missions to meet the needs of modern adolescents. This will require schools to become more culturally competent (meaning understanding differences in background and building on adolescents’ varying strengths), to emphasize non-academic skill building (like developing strong interpersonal skills), and to help young people navigate numerous educational and career opportunities. To learn more about adolescents’ experiences in the education system, see Chapter 6.
The committee’s recommendations highlight six key areas to implement such change. Taken together, they form a blueprint for a developmentally-informed secondary education system.
Access to appropriate health care services is important for adolescents, both to ensure their well-being today, as they experience the bumps and stresses of adolescent life, and to ensure their well-being for a lifetime by addressing habits that affect their long-term health. The U.S. health care system can better support adolescents by helping them navigate the health care system independently and by providing services that are culturally-informed and attentive to their needs. Significant work is needed to develop a health care workforce that can help adolescents feel safe and welcomed. To learn more about adolescents’ experiences in the health system and the challenges they face, see Chapter 7.
The committee’s recommendations draw on research to identify more effective health policies, programs, and practices with five key aims.
Relative to young children, adolescents have advanced decision-making skills and can more effectively seek solutions that are right for them. Therefore, adolescents in the child welfare system need services and supports that differ from young children and that allow them to be partners in decisions that affect their housing, health, mental health, and education. See Chapter 8 to learn more about how the child welfare system can be reformed to meet the needs of adolescents.
Because adolescent brains are still developing, the juvenile and criminal justice systems need to enact policies and practices that reflect our understanding of brain development and adolescents’ potential responsiveness to preventive interventions.
Areas of opportunity for reform within the juvenile justice system include increased family engagement and greater attention to procedural fairness, including interactions with police, legal representation for youth, and reduced use of juvenile fines and fees.
Similar reform efforts recognizing the developmental needs of older adolescents and young adults are emerging within the criminal justice system, including reducing automatic transfers of juveniles to criminal courts based only on the charged offense, and creating developmentally informed correctional programs for young offenders. These efforts should be guided by the science of adolescent development.
For more on adolescents’ needs in the justice system, see Chapter 9.
Parents, families, and other caregivers play an essential role in supporting the wellbeing of their developing adolescents. Supportive relationships with parents and caregivers are the foundation of healthy development for adolescents, just as they are for young children. While the role of parents certainly changes compared to early in life, their significance does not.
While there is no prescription for being the “perfect parent” to an adolescent, decades of research suggest a few practices that are consistently associated with positive youth outcomes across contexts.
Adolescents have the power to shape the course of their own lives, as well as the well-being of their communities and society at large. Environment and experience critically sculpt the developmental process of adolescence, and youth themselves are shaping these experiences and environments.
Throughout the study process, the committee engaged with a diverse group of adolescents to learn how they perceive their communities, families, and themselves. Youth from across the country were engaged to share their knowledge, experiences, and insights with the committee.
Adolescence is a period of great opportunity to promote learning and discovery and to address the harmful effects of past negative experiences. Our society has a collective responsibility to build systems and enact policies that help adolescents thrive and take advantage of the great promise of this stage of life. These systems should account for the new knowledge we have acquired through research. By embracing this collective responsibility, we can ensure that millions of young people flourish and impact society for the better.
Funders for Adolescent Science Translation, including:
The Annie E. Casey Foundation
The Bezos Family Foundation
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
The Ford Foundation
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation
The Raikes Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The National Public Education Support Fund